The measure of a marine

From Secrets of Success: North Carolina Values-Based Leadership by Gen. H. Hugh Shelton. Copyright © 2009. Published by and used with the permission of Ivy House Publishing Group.

From the time he became CEO in 1983 to his retirement in 2001, Hugh McColl waged an aggressive campaign that turned what once had been North Carolina National Bank into Bank of America, relying on the skills he honed in a uniform that bore scant resemblance to a Charlotte bankerís dark suit.

Iíve been blessed with leadership skills, skills that were developed as an officer in the Marine Corps. I learned some very simple precepts, precepts that worked. If youíre going to lead people, you have to do it from in front. You donít order people into battle, you lead them. So in business, if you wish to accomplish something, you lead by example. If you want your people to work late at night to meet a deadline, then you should be working with them. And the troops have to eat first. In a business sense, that means looking after your people first, see that theyíre paid well, treated properly.

The thing that I really learned in the Marine Corps, and this was a great change in my life, was that everybody pulled their pants on the same way. Iíd grown up fairly privileged, went to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, got in with no problem. Iíd lived in a segregated society and, candidly, had not thought about this critically. In the Marine Corps, I learned that you judged a man on what he could do as opposed to who his parents were or where he went to school. So during my years at the helm at Bank of America, my leadership view was to judge people only on what they did, not on any other artificial criteria. Another thing the Marine Corps taught was that when you put on that uniform you were a Marine. There were expectations of you as a Marine.

So I adopted the same philosophy in my company. If you put on our uniform you were one of us, and we trusted you. An employee didnít have to prove to me that I could trust them, I already did. They could only prove to me that I shouldnít. I had a great team of people, and we took a very small bank, NCNB, and built it into the largest bank in the United States. I used the walk-around management style. Memos werenít my thing. If someone wrote to me, I wanted the punch line right up front. We communicated with all our employees personally and with the thousands who joined us during our acquisitions. I went out of my way to tell people what counted, what our expectations were. Encouraged open debates in the war room. Rank didnít matter ó if you had a better opinion, it could carry the day. But once we made a decision, we came out of that room in lockstep. Then we went to the execution stage. Now I donít mean to say that I couldnít change my opinion or my direction. But if I did, it was only based on new and valuable information. Iíd be a fool to say that everyone embraced our philosophy of leadership because they didnít; some thought that it was too egalitarian. But there were no clubhouse lawyers. If they fought the program, they didnít make it.

I looked for leaders who were hardworking, energetic, willing to take risks and be decisive.

We forgave errors of commission but not errors of omission. I wanted managers who were fair and equitable, who didnít blame others but took on the responsibility themselves. Popularity, being elected to be in charge, can be very confusing. Itís good for your confidence, and leaders must have confidence. But until people in charge understand that leadership isnít a popularity contest, they arenít leaders.

When people came to me with a problem, Iíd say, ďWhat do you think we should do about it?Ē Itís very hard to bluff your way out of that. Today, we have a lot of problems in the financial service industry, and the leadership that will succeed will be the leadership that can rally their people to the task of digging out of that trouble. Itís not a question of are they in trouble. So decisiveness is important, and the leaderís job is to chart the course to encourage the followership that will solve these very serious problems. Now, this is something that I refer to often when Iím speaking about leadership. In Matthew 4:19, Jesus said to the fishermen, Peter and Andrew, ďFollow me, and I will make you fishers of men.Ē What Jesus was offering was everlasting life. Now, flash forward to 1918 France, World War I and the Battle of Belleau Wood. Sgt. Dan Daly and a bunch of Marines were pinned down in a wheat field under heavy fire from machine guns. These Marines were getting slaughtered. Daly stood and shouted, ďCome on, you sons of bitches. Do you want to live forever? Follow me!Ē And they did, they attacked the Germans with nothing but their bayonets and routed them. Now, my point is this: One man, Jesus, offered everlasting life. The other, Daly, offered almost sure death. Why did people follow them both? Well, people follow a leader because they believe that leader can take them somewhere that they canít go by themselves. And thatís what leadership is really all about Ö followership.